Analysis: Is history closing in on Corbyn’s ‘constructive ambiguity’ over Brexit?

Ben Wray

Is Labour’s strategy caught between a General Election and a second vote?

AS MAY’S DEAL finally stumbles into the House of Commons, decision time also draws nearer for the Labour party.

Corbyn has been careful, and largely successful so far, in holding together a voting base divided on the issue of leaving the EU.

But what he does next, and how successful that move is, could be critical to the party’s political fortunes.

The end of ‘constructive ambiguity’

The relative vagueness of Labour’s stance on Brexit is not particularly unusual for electoral politics. In fact. it’s unusual for an opposition to establish hard and fast positions on a complex constitutional and strategic issue.

It’s probably the case that Labour’s ambiguity on Brexit allowed it to draw together its divided voter base through the 2017 election and for much of the time since. 

Labour voters split roughly two thirds for Remain against one third Leave in 2016 (quite typical of the political make-up of the vote – roughly a third of SNP voters also voted Leave). Just as importantly, Leave voters are more heavily concentrated in constituencies Labour must win to form a government.

But the major strategic choice for Labour is where and how it ends that ambiguity.

Since its 2018 conference, Labour’s position has been to:

– Oppose May’s Deal

– Push for a General Election and after to negotiate a new deal with the EU

– Should this fail, “all options are open” including a second referendum on the EU.

How Corbyn seeks to break the deadlock

The good news for Corbyn’s project is that Brexit is not the sole or comprehensive concern for Labour supporters.

With the saturation of panicked opinion in the media, regular news consumers would be forgiven for thinking that everyone believes that Brexit is the central issue which over-determines all connected policy areas.

According to this view Corbyn’s flagship policies – whether it’s refinancing the NHS, bringing transport infrastructure into public hands or reorganising the housing market – are all fundamentally tied to the health of the economy and therefore necessitate maintaining existing trade relations.

This view jars with the radical social democratic and socialist views of Corbyn and his movement, which understand that the state is the largest and most powerful actor in the concentration of wealth and power in society and that other forms of economic organisation besides markets can be used to provision goods and services.

A survey of Labour members by the Economic and Social Research Council found that despite less than 10 per cent of respondents having voted Leave, a massive 84 per cent favoured a General Election in the event of May’s deal being voted down, and only 29 per cent oppose Labour’s approach to Brexit. This despite the overwhelming weighting towards Remain backing Labour members.

There is also considerable polling evidence that Labour members back Remain and a second vote. But above all they back Corbyn and his approach – 65 per cent of Labour members think Corbyn is doing a good job.

Corbyn undermined

Corbyn’s strategy of pressing for a General Election relates both to the social democratic turn inside the Labour party and the recognition that Brexit was not simply about the EU. but about the accumulated failures of the British social order to address people’s fundamental needs.

Regional economic underdevelopment, precarious employment, the housing crisis and anger over the democratic deficit crystallised into an extreme distrust of politicians and their institutions.

Corbyn’s best hope of addressing Brexit and this wider context requires a disciplined focus on a General Election as the mechanism by which the political crisis is resolved. But this strategy received a blow at the 2018 Labour conference.

In Liverpool in September an operation coordinated between a  faction of Labour members and external organisations financed by wealthy backers pushed for the inclusion of a second referendum on EU membership as part of Labour’s strategy.

From the off Corbyn and his shadow cabinet Brexit chief Keir Starmer pitched this idea separately, with Corbyn using his closing speech at conference to clearly position this option as inferior to a general election.

But once in place this notion of a second referendum presents the Labour leadership with a problem: why would Tories cave to pressure for a General Election if, failing that election, Labour is bound to adopt the demand of a second referendum?

By resisting a General Election, no matter how pathetic and dysfunctional the government becomes, they force Labour to adopt a position that will alienate a large portion of their voters.


Some on the Labour left (particularly those pushing for a second referendum) clearly believe that the outcome of the Brexit crisis is incidental to the progress of the Corbyn project. This is not the case.

The People’s Vote campaign pressing for another referendum has a distinctive political dynamic. Its demands for the restoration of order in society disrupted by the Leave vote also indicate a hostility towards the Corbyn project for its disruptive potential (unsuprisingly, it’s leaders are also hostile to Scottish Independence). A victory for this element, which has a bank of support in the Parliamentary Labour Party, would be a major threat to Corbyn and the left.

But a general slide towards campaigning for Remain (as may have been indicated in a recent interview with Andrew Marr on Sunday 13 January), either in a second referendum or a forthcoming General Election, would also alienate a key Labour demographic. Not just because of a disagreement over the EU itself, but because of a perception that politicians refuse to enact the majority decision of June 23 2016. 

This would only add to a weight of opinion in society that politicians interests are the same and alien to those of ‘ordinary people’. For Corbyn to be added in the minds of millions of voters to this problem, the future of his ‘populist’ strategy would be in severe doubt.

Meanwhile May’s strategy of resubmitting her deal to the parliament, possibly during an Article 50 extension period, would go unmolested by either a General Election or a second referendum.

Even should Corbyn achieve a General Election, both his campaign and his government would still face fundamental dilemmas. Could he pursue a strong campaign on Labour’s version of Brexit (‘a’ customs union and ‘access’ to the single market), could he compel new negotiations with the EU, and could he arrive at an eventual deal that would maintain both Leave and Remain support?

For Corbyn to resolve the Brexit crisis on his terms, more than ever he needs the intervention of an extra-parliamentary force that puts whole-society reform back on the agenda.

Read more: The take away from the first days of Brexit 2019? No Deal is a charade that won’t happen